02 :: FIRE ESCAPE
— Cooper —
SHE’S KIND OF A MYSTERY, that Grace Sinclair. The TV is alive with smiling faces, but all I hear is static as I hold the worn out paperback up to the blue light of the screen. The fan is whirring overhead, a black hole from where I’m sitting. I wonder how fast it happens, the unbecoming of something tangible. Readjusting my position lying on the couch, my mind whirs with the possibilities. Something to nothing, in an instant. When I’m like this, I think of her a lot. Ovid always did bring out the hopeless romantic in me.
Somehow, the window is still open. I could’ve sworn I closed it half an hour ago. Muting the TV, I get up to shut it, but movement in the street below catches my eye. A yellow taxi screeches up to the curb, emitting a high pitched hiss that no one except a dog or me could possibly be bothered by. I recognize the face instantly. Mason—Grace’s boyfriend of almost a year—emerges from the cab, slamming the door a little too loudly behind him in his obvious rush to get inside the building. I shove the window down so hard the pane rattles.
I meet him in the hallway just in time. Usually, I don’t interfere in these situations, but there’s always a certain stance, a certain gait. I could recognize it a mile away. It’s the walk of a hollow man filled to the brim with alcohol. He looks like he could tip over and break at any moment, leaning drunkenly against the wall just outside door 7A—Grace’s door—when I exit my own apartment. I bump into him with my shoulder before he can pound on her door, intentionally accidentally. The guy reeks.
He stumbles around to face me, a sour grimace of confusion slackened over his features. “Gotta problem, man?”
“It’s late.” I shrug. “Why don’t you head home?”
He chuckles, suppresses a hiccup, and rolls his dulled eyes. “She’s not asleep. I know she’s not.” He cups a hand around his ear, presses his head against her wall with raised eyebrows. “I can hear her breathing in there, man. Can’t you hear it?”
Something in my chest constricts when I say, “Yeah,”
He drops his hand, laughing. For a few seconds, I’m convinced he might give up easily. I guess my logic is twisted by the fresh recollection of her all-consuming eyes, that black hole gaze that pulls so hard at every frayed edge. Like she’s wanted to discover what was underneath the decaying wallpaper from the very beginning.
Before I know what I’m doing, I kind of go blind with the onslaught of rage. My hands are fists gripping Mason’s jacket. The words come out sharp and succinct, a deep growl that sounds more animal than I expect it to. “Get the hell out.”
Mason chokes a little before I shove him away. He sneers up at me from the ground, reminding me of a diseased rodent. It’s then that I hear the door open behind me. Grace is in the doorway, which suddenly seems to expand around her, a picture frame boxing her in. Her eyes grow wide, darting from me to Mason and back again.
She shoves past me, right to Mason’s side. From there, I can only watch the travesty unfold. She places herself underneath his arm, serving as a crutch to prop him up. She leaves the front door open, leaves me standing in it as she helps Mason to the couch. The scene feels achingly familiar.
I watch her bustle around in the sitting room for a while, gripping the sides of the front doorway with white knuckles. I’m convinced that if I clutch it with enough force, the whole thing will shatter in my hands. When she leans down to kiss him on the forehead, I fix my gaze to a spot on the floor, to the space right between my feet, the threshold. But no matter how hard I stare, I can still hear the whisperings, Grace’s hushed apologies and sick nothings. The bitter taste of bile rises in the back of my throat.
A few minutes later, when Mason is snoring on the couch, she meets me at the doorway. I can’t help but notice that we are standing on opposite sides. With a fresh cup of coffee in hand, she stares at me for a long moment, contemplating. “Cooper Benson, you’re an asshole.”
Despite everything, I find myself chuckling at this statement. Hopelessly making a complete fool out of myself. The hilarity tapers out, so I resort to anxiously rubbing the base of my skull in the place where it still gets sore from time to time. My withdrawals tend to root themselves there like weeds, arguably in the same place logic and emotional control typically reside. Remembering this, I find the will to meet Grace’s big brown gaze and apologize. “I’m sorry.”
Her lips curl into a soft smile, complete with two distinct dimples and a hum of approval. She takes another sip, raising her eyebrows in a suggestion before mumbling from behind the rim of her mug, “It’s a beautiful night.”
Five minutes later, we have scaled the fire escape ladder and settled on the edge of the rooftop, socked feet dangling over the abyss.
“So,” She sighs before she begins. “My mom’s favorite color was red.”
I can’t suppress the smile that rises to the surface at her seemingly random choice of topic. “Red, huh?”
“She said it was the color of my dad’s nose.” She nods. “And, I guess I just always imagined, you know, freaking Santa.”
Grace scoffs, ignoring my snickering. She tips the coffee mug up into her mouth, gulping the rest of it down before I can catch my breath. When I finally do, she’s looking out at the view. The cityscape is sparkling as she takes it in, and the slight breeze sweeps strands of her hair up and waves them wild around her head. I imagine her floating up in space, weightless. It’s not far from the truth.
“But…” I say, memorizing her side profile.
She sighs. “But…”
We take our time out here, exposed to the elements. So I find that whenever she’s not speaking, Grace is breaking up buildings and shaping them into conversations. At the very least, she is twisting the empty air between us and below us into some sort of explanation.
“I know what you mean.” I say, tapping the side of my nose. “I’m a little pink, myself.”
She smiles and nudges my shoulder. “Yeah, well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, Mason is—he’s just—he seems… golden.”
“Right,” I swallow a lump in my throat, wait a few beats wringing my hands. “Speaking of gold, uh, do you know what they called the late 1800s?”
Grace turns to me incredulously. I smile, “Yeah, it has a nickname. They called it the Gilded Age.”
“Okay?” She says, brows furrowed.
I try again. “The whole idea is that, like, you can make anything gold. People in the late 1800s were, like, sick rich. Rockefeller, Carnegie, all those guys. Right? So—”
“I don’t get it.” She kind of laughs, skeptical.
“Just—just hold on, let me finish.” I stammer through a smile. “The idea is that you can take a piece of shit, a piece of literal shit, pour this liquid gold stuff over it, let it solidify, and suddenly, its valuable.”
Her mouth is agape, the faintest hints of a smile turning up at the edges when I finish. She scoffs, “Okay… and what’s your point?”
“Well, Mason, uh, he is the…” I take a big breath before I speak the truth, a dramatic pause to make sure she’s paying attention to my ill-timed metaphor. “He’s the piece of literal shit.”
“Ah,” Grace’s mouth clamps shut. She seems to close in on herself, and something in the middle of my chest twists at the sight.
Backpedaling was never in my plan of how to navigate this particular conversation, but somehow that’s what I end up trying to do as I watch her shut down. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Grace, he’s cool when he’s sober. I just, you know, I wish he wouldn’t—”
“You wish?” She cuts me off, chewing on the inside of her cheek agitatedly. “Jesus, Cooper,”
I catch myself counting the windows of the building across the street, a nauseous feeling in my stomach at the prospect of her defending him. I don’t respond in the hopes that maybe she won’t this time.
“Mason loves me.” She whispers after a few moments. I flinch at the words, more internally than outwardly. I feel her presence right beside me and that is the biggest reason to keep my mouth shut.
She clears her throat before her voice returns to a normal volume. “He’s—he’s what I need.”
I’m grinding my jaw now, all the things I want to say restrained by a set of teeth and sheer force of will. I don’t dare look at her, but I can feel her studying me intently. That place in my chest, it throbs and aches under her scrutiny, and I find that I’ve never felt more exposed.
I manage a nod, and the conversation is over faster than it began.
“It’s late.” She murmurs abrasively, standing up and starting back towards the fire escape. “Thanks for the history lesson.”
I stay there for a long time after she leaves. The prospect of following her doesn’t make sense anymore.